WASHINGTON — NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) — which is run by California Institute of Technology employees, not federal civil servants — temporarily dodged the government shutdown bullet, ensuring that several major robotic space missions —  at least for the immediate future — continued regular operations as other NASA centers shut their doors to all but a small number of “essential” personnel. 

“Because all of our employees are here and working, all of our day-to-day missions that were planned will continue,” Veronica McGregor, a spokeswoman for JPL, told SpaceNews Oct. 1. “All of NASA’s existing missions are expected to continue space operations.”

The reprieve will not continue indefinitely. McGregor said JPL would continue normal operations “for the next week, and then they will be reassessing the situation here on a weekly basis to see how long we can continue.”

While all but 549 of NASA’s roughly 18,000 civil servants have been furloughed, some contractors would be able to continue their work for the space agency, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said Sept. 30.

“Contractors that have sufficient funds on contract and have a facility outside NASA can keep working,” Beutel told SpaceNews. “If they’re doing any work on a federal facility, that has to stop.”

JPL, unlike other NASA centers, is a federally funded research-and-development center run by the California Institute of Technology under contract to NASA. That means data gathered by JPL-led missions can still be parsed by scientists and engineers at the Pasadena, Calif., field center. For missions run by other centers, skeleton crews will operate spacecraft to ensure that data keep flowing, but prohibit anyone from studying them in detail until the shutdown is resolved.

“Operating satellites get to maintain operations, but no scientists and engineers can process that data,” Beutel said. “The ones and zeroes come in and that’s all.”


As U.S. Government Shuts Down, Most NASA Work To Grind to a Halt

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...